Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Gypsy Moth Hunter

I've been asked what it's like to have such a fringe, semi-secretive job. A restricted few can handle the pressure of the hunt. You may spend days alone in the woods tracking a single moth. Sometimes you think that you've finally got a male lured in, when he suddenly flutters away with shocking speed. You made the mistake of lock eyes. A secret of some of great gypsy moth hunters, such as Martin Killingsbeeworthsome, is the female pheromone carefully dabbed behind the left ear. But one must be careful in using the correct amount when employing this dangerous tactic. One unfortunate hunter was found without pants, reciting Mont Phyton's Swallow Debate, after a pack of males had severely molested both his kneecaps. But it is worth any peril to finally capture an elusive alpha male that you've stalked with out food for 2 to 72 hours. To say my job is dangerous is an overstatement... sometimes.

So on with the real story. I basically hang cardboard boxes in trees with a female gypsy moth pheromone scent and sticky goo inside. Mostly the traps are spread 2 kilometers(~1 1/4 miles) apart along longitude and latitude lines. I had 2000 to hang this year, which is a lot. Some of the work is dull, some not as much. Most traps are hung along roadways in DOT right of way, some are not. I try to contact landowners or at least leave an information card with note for the off road traps. Sometimes I say that I am a professional trespasser. I've gotten good at not getting into trouble with landowners or at least talking my way out of trouble. Actually, I've worked most of the areas for several years so many recognize me and call me the "moth man." Leaving the road though is where work does often get interesting.

First, driving off-road can be interesting. Heck, driving on some roads can be interesting. I drive a small 4 wheel drive SUV for the hunt. I have been on state maintained, or not-maintained, roads that required putting my vehicle in 4 wheel drive. There were ruts knee deep in one road and when I got to the end, there was a stop sign. I've driven up absurd mountain driveways to find a beautiful house out of nowhere. But 4 wheel drive was required to get there and there was no way they went anywhere when winter weather came. In fact, one lady said she went to town only once a month. I drove one road or private road, if you could call it a road, that topped them all this year. It was absurdly rocky, rutted, and steep in places. I got out of the vehicle a couple of time to scout my way through a section. I felt like I was canoeing. One of those places I stopped because it dropped off so steeply I could not see the road over the hood. I could see the stream I was going to drive through 20 yards down but not the road to it. My under frame got stuck on a rock at one point, forcing me to back up and reroute. I did meet another 4 wheel truck creeping up this road. Some of the off, off-road driving is even more treacherous. I was driving up a mountain on an old wood road that got so steep my vehicle would no longer go. That got my heart rate up, but I told myself getting excited was not an option. It was so steep that if would have gotten sideways, my SUV would have rolled over. I had to back down to straddle a small drainage cut that keeps the path from washing out. I knew I had one shot to back it in right or be stuck, or turned over. I got it in right, then out of the vehicle to hike on to hang the trap and get my heartbeat to slow down.

I hike or run to the traps that can't be driven to. I get to see many remote and interesting places doing this, especially in the mountain areas that I work. I see lots of rock outcroppings, streams, unique trees, and other plants. I saw a tree in middle of woods a couple of years ago that with two 12" diameter trunks that joined back to one trunk 20' up to make an unique loop. I was hiking over a steep ridge in a state park this year to come up on a 50'+ waterfall that virtually no one ever sees. There is always wildlife. Deer are just common, but I did get to pet a probably day old fawn in the wild this year. I came up on a doe and fawn, so they both start to run. The fawn was too small and wobbly, stumbling only 10' or so, then lying flat in the weeds. I had never seen a fawn that small. Lying flat on it's stomach it was only 3-4 inches off the ground. If I had not seen where it went, I would have never seen it when I walked by. I squatted by it and it never moved. I stroked its back twice and not a twitch. I was running straight off the side of mountain this year as the last sunlight was vanishing. I spooked three bears who hauled ass straight up another ridge. I wish I ran uphill as fast. There are also plenty of turkey. I nearly stepped on a turkey nesting in the grass a few years ago. I've jumped a hen and her diddles as they run and disappear in the grass. They hide well, too. This year I jumped over a rattlesnake running up a deer trail. I get warned about them often as well as bear and coyote, but that was my first rattlesnake encounter. I had been told you won't see them until you are on top of them. I found that to be true as I saw the rattlesnake as my next step would have been on it. I leapt up and over. The snake never moved. Most of the snakes I encounter do move. In fact, I think that has kind of become one of my skills. Identify critters by the sounds they make moving in the woods. That's a snake, a lizard, a squirrel, a rabbit, a deer, a bear, bird in the leaves, a turkey. I also do that with the insects that crawl on me constantly. I feel something crawling and know if it's tick, spider, granddaddy, or inch worm. Oh the skills of the Gypsy Moth Hunter.

Then there are the people. Go to unique places and you'll meet some unique people. The "ordinary" unique folk are common at this point. This Memorial weekend I was looking for a way to get to an off road trap. I pull up to a short driveway up a mountainside. There is older car parked there. I get out and see a path up the hill. A roughly dressed guy walks down to meet me. I try explain what I'm doing and he says to come up, sit, and we'll talk about. I walk up the path to fully landscaped hillside under the trees. It is mulched with various shrubs and perennial plants. There is a deck with a small fish pond on the side of this very steep hill. He has a small flattened out area with a canvas shelter and a couple of chairs. There are two calico cats lounging. He talks about area as he turns on a fountain in the pond that shoot water 15' in the air. He has tapped into a spring far up the hill, piped it down to create the pressure for his high spouting fountain. We sit and he offers me a beer to join in his lounging. I am fairly sure he is also smoking marijuana. They're hand rolled and their scent gives them away. We talk a little about what I'm doing, but he talks mostly about other random stuff. I finally say that I need to be going, but he invites me back later in evening to sit a while if I'm interested. There is no house anywhere around. Not sure if he lived there or not, but it was obvious he is there often. The whole thing was just really random. I do see many unique living situations. I pass one guy's place every year that is really just a shed/shack. Not sure if he has electricity or not.

I am often warned of landowners, as I inquire how to get to some remote place. Often the warning is of a landowner carrying a gun. Rarely do I have a problem, though it is not uncommon to meet someone with a gun on their hip. This year's gun story was funny to me. I'm hanging a trap at the end of this dirt road off in the mountains. A older guy, 60+, comes walking down out of the woods with an old western style holster and revolver. I explain what I'm doing back here and he says no problem. He's just out for hike. He's say that he is getting some exercise, trying to stay fit. Maybe I'll show up to a race later this summer with a revolver on my hip. I can say that I'm just trying to stay fit... with a revolver. Might encourage some of the competition not to pass me.

Well that's enough stories for now from this gypsy moth hunter. August is coming and I'll back in the woods stalking the elusive brown and white tree killer.

A Male and Female "Playing"

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